Something completely unexpected is happening at Aston Villa.
When Steven Gerrard was first appointed manager in November, nobody could have anticipated there would be a superstar in their midst so soon, but having exploded into life at Villa Park, he has quickly become an emblem of what can be achieved under the new manager.
Amazingly, that man is not Philippe Coutinho, the second most expensive player in football history, but 20-year-old academy graduate Jacob Ramsey.
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Last season, Ramsey started six Premier League games and appeared a further 16 times from the bench, his integration into the team as much to do with injuries to Morgan Sanson and Marvelous Nakamba than his own readiness.
He looked assured and smart, but a little too hesitant and sideways, the sort of academy player that Villa so often produce: useful, but most likely to end up as a solid Championship player.
In fact, even during his time in Villa’s academy, his younger brother Aaron, currently on loan at Cheltenham Town, was considered the more exciting prospect.
However, seemingly out of nowhere, Ramsey has gone up several notches, embracing Premier League life with a fearlessness and self-confidence that has seen him become a firm favourite under Gerrard.
In all manner of areas – from dribbles to passes to duels won – his numbers per 90 are up compared to last season, although one in particular stands out.
In 2020-21, he produced 1.25 ‘progressive runs’ per 90 – a WyScout measure of ‘a continuous ball control by one player attempting to draw the team significantly closer to the opponents' goal’.
This season, they have doubled to 2.49 per 90.
What marks Ramsey out is his intelligence and forward momentum.
The 20-year-old is constantly making himself available for the pass and receiving it on the half-turn, ready to either drive forward in possession (most famously for his brilliant solo goal against Norwich) or feed a sharp vertical pass into the forwards.
Per FBRef, he is Villa’s leading midfielder for total distance carrying the ball this season (3391 yards) and also tops the Villa charts for the number of carries that enter the final third (32).
This running, bursting through the lines and towards the heart of the opponent, is something he is clearly learning from Gerrard.
Unsurprisingly, Ramsey’s FBRef statistics reveal huge improvements made under Gerrard.
In the Premier League in 2021-22, his dribbling has gone up from 1.22 per game pre-Gerrard to 1.97 per game post-Gerrard.
Similarly, he is receiving 38.2 passes per game compared to 28.5 per game and is taking 52.3 touches per game compared to 42.3 per game.
This paints a picture of a player far more heavily involved, looking to get on the ball and dribble forward.
More importantly, his ‘progressive distance from carries’ is now 131.1 yards per game, up greatly from 106.8 yards per game under Dean Smith this season, while his ‘progressive distance from passes’ is up from 129.4 per game to 153.7 per game.
And Ramsey is only getting better, and more vertical, over time.
While a lot of this is simply talent blossoming, Gerrard also deserves a lot of credit for producing a complex tactical shape with clearly delineated positional instructions – ensuring Ramsey is always in the right place and always has passing options.
‘Progressive passing’ measures completed passes that move the ball towards the opponents' goal at least 10 yards from its furthest point in the last six passes, or any completed pass into the penalty area.
Ramsey has averaged 5.1 progressive passes across his six most recent Premier League games, a tally that over the course of the season would have him third among midfielders, behind only Bruno Fernandes and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
Villa’s confidence in driving forward owes a lot to the assurances they feel from the manager’s overriding structure.
Gerrard’s 4-3-2-1 formation inherently offers Ramsey more passing options than he would have under Smith.
The use of dual No.10s, who sit narrowly behind a centre forward, give Ramsey the straight pass he loves to make.
What’s more, talented playmakers like Coutinho and Emiliano Buendia draw defenders towards them, which in compressed midfield spaces opens up gaps for Ramsey to move into with the ball at his feet.
Opposition midfielders previously focusing on Ramsey must now deal with Villa's 10s, but Ramsey’s progress has also been assisted by Villa’s deeper line of engagement.
Under Gerrard, they tend to only apply pressure in the middle third of the pitch, rather than the high press that Smith deployed, which simplifies Ramsey’s position and makes it easier for Villa to achieve compression from front to back.
In other words, Ramsey is surrounded by players who know their individual roles, creating fertile conditions for his rapid improvement.
And it is truly incredible to watch him take these strides in such a short space of time. Ramsey has gone from one goal involvement in 10 games under Smith in 2021-22 to five in 10 under Gerrard – and four in his last three.
That clinical final touch, the hardest skill of all, is what makes Ramsey’s ascension so exciting.
Having already proved he can do it at the highest level – scoring goals against Manchester United and Arsenal, while partnering Coutinho as an equal against Leeds United – Ramsey has established himself as one of the most gifted young players in England.